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AirPods are earplugs now

AirPods are earplugs now


Noise-canceling wireless earbuds aren’t just great for listening to music or podcasts — they are also great for turning down the volume of the world around you.

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A person holds two AirPods Pro earbuds in their hand.
Apple’s AirPods Pro 2 and numerous other wireless earbuds have active noise-cancellation features to block unwanted outside noise.
Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

Lately, I’ve been using my AirPods to hear nothing.

My usage of Apple’s AirPods Pro and other noise-canceling wireless earbuds has changed from when I first started wearing them half a decade or so ago. Back then, I’d pop in earbuds to listen to music, stream a podcast, or watch video on my phone or tablet while in a public place. I’d take meetings and calls with them or put them in when doing yard work for some motivational metal. On walks around the neighborhood, my earbuds would accompany me with audio to keep me entertained and moving.

Now, I most often don’t listen to anything when wearing them. I’ll pop the AirPods or another noise-canceling earbud in my ears when sitting in a coffee shop where the music and chatter is too loud; I’ll wear them in my home office to cut the sound of my fan or air purifier. I’ll even use them when I’m sitting in my favorite chair reading a book so I’m not distracted by kids wreaking havoc a room over. I’m not playing music or a podcast or anything in those instances; I’m just wearing the AirPods with their noise-cancellation features enabled.

It’s undeniable that modern life has gotten very loud. Urban environments are noisy, coffee shops and restaurants routinely turn music up to club levels, and open office plans are widely criticized for how much noisier they are than cubicle farms. Anyone who lives in a home with an open floor plan and more than one other person can attest to how noisy the space becomes when you can’t shut doors to separate rooms.

That noise primarily makes it hard for me and a lot of other easily distracted people to relax or focus, but it can also be detrimental to your hearing over time. Noise pollution has become such a topic of concern that the Apple Watch will even give you a warning when you’ve been exposed to high decibels for an extended period.

Now, noise-canceling earbuds are not effective enough to completely mute the world. (In my experience, Samsung’s first-gen Galaxy Buds Pro are the most comfortable and effective at canceling noise such as conversation, but since they don’t integrate as nicely as the AirPods Pro do with my daily devices, AirPods it is for me.) They also aren’t my choice for long travel on an airplane — over-ear headphones are much more effective for that.

A side-by-side comparison photo of Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds II, Apple’s AirPods Pro, and Sony’s WF-1000XM4.
Bose, Apple, Sony, and others all have effective enough noise-cancellation features.
Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

But wireless earbuds are good at reducing the amount of noise that gets to my eardrums. It’s like turning the world down from an 11 to a more reasonable four or five. If a person speaks to me directly, I can generally hear them, but if they are having a conversation with someone else nearby, I’m not distracted by what they are talking about. I can still hear enough of my kids’ play to know they are still alive (or if someone has gotten hurt and needs an adult), but I don’t get irritated by every little scream and shriek that emanates from wherever they are. (Any parent can tell you, little kids scream and shriek A Lot.) They are also more convenient to have with me anywhere than over-ear headphones.

Wireless earbuds are also easy to briefly remove when I do need to hear someone clearer or want to listen for traffic or another safety concern. Popping an AirPod out of my ear is typically so much quicker and easier than trying to switch between noise-cancellation and transparency modes that I almost never use the latter.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why I’m using expensive technology that needs to be charged and cared for to do something that a cheap foam earplug can do just as well. And to that I say, fair. You got me. But I already have the AirPods, and when they are in my ears, I can choose to either listen to something or not, which isn’t an option with foam earplugs.

It’s also interesting that my usage of AirPods dovetails with their recently acquired ability to amplify the noise around you as a stand-in for hearing aids. That’s certainly helpful for those that have hearing loss, but for me, for now, I appreciate their cancellation abilities more.

So instead of shaking my fist and yelling at everyone to turn it down, I pop my earbuds in and go on about my day. After all, silence is bliss.